From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur
Pasiphae, wife of King Minos of Crete, had several children before the Minotaur. The eldest of these, Androgeus, set sail for Athens to take part in the Pan-Athenian games, which were held there every four years. Being strong and skillful, he did very well, winning some events outright. He soon became a crowd favorite, much to the resentment of the Pallantides, and they assassinated him, incurring the wrath of Minos.
When King Minos had heard of what befell his son, he ordered the Cretan fleet to set sail for Athens. Minos asked Aegeus for his son's assassins, and if they were to be handed to him, the town would be spared. However, not knowing who the assassins were, King Aegeus surrendered the whole town to Minos' mercy. His retribution was that, at the end of every Great Year (seven solar years), the seven most courageous youths and the seven most beautiful maidens were to board a boat and be sent as tribute to Crete, never to be seen again.
In another version, King Minos of Crete had waged war with the Athenians and was successful. He then demanded that, at nine-year intervals, seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls were to be sent to Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster that lived in the Labyrinth created by Daedalus.
On the third occasion, Theseus volunteered to slay the monster. He took the place of one of the youths and set off with a black sail, promising to his father, Aegeus, that if successful he would return with a white sail. Like the others, Theseus was stripped of his weapons when they sailed. On his arrival in Crete, Ariadne, King Minos' daughter, fell in love with Theseus and, on the advice of Daedalus, gave him a ball of thread or clue, so he could find his way out of the Labyrinth. That night, Ariadne escorted Theseus to the Labyrinth, and Theseus promised that if he returned from the Labyrinth he would take Ariadne with him. As soon as Theseus entered the Labyrinth, he tied one end of the ball of string to the door post and brandished his sword which he had kept hidden from the guards inside his tunic. Theseus followed Daedalus' instructions given to Ariadne; go forwards, always down and never left or right. Theseus came to the heart of the Labyrinth and also upon the sleeping Minotaur. The beast awoke and a tremendous fight then occurred. Theseus overpowered the Minotaur with his strength and stabbed the beast in the throat with his sword (according to one scholium on Pindar's Fifth Nemean Ode, Theseus strangled it).
After decapitating the beast, Theseus used the string to escape the Labyrinth and managed to escape with all of the young Athenians and Ariadne as well as her younger sister Phaedra. Then he and the rest of the crew fell asleep on the beach. Athena woke Theseus and told him to leave early that morning. Athena told Theseus to leave Ariadne and Phaedra on the beach. Stricken with distress, Theseus forgot to put up the white sails instead of the black ones, so the king committed suicide, in some versions throwing himself off a cliff and into the sea. Dionysus later saw Ariadne crying out for Theseus and took pity on her and married her.
Adaptations of the myth
Mary Renault's The King Must Die (1958) is a dramatic retelling of the Theseus legend through the return from Crete to Athens. While fictional, it is generally faithful to the spirit and flavor of the best-known variations of the original story. The sequel is The Bull from the Sea (1962), about the hero's later career. Theseus is also a prominent character as the Duke of Athens in William Shakespeare's plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Shakespeare draws on Geoffrey Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Giovanni Boccaccio's Teseida, whence the use of the anachronistic term "Duke": when Boccaccio and Chaucer were writing in the fourteenth century, there was an actual Duke of Athens. Hippolyta also appears in both plays.
John Dempsey's "Ariadne's Brother: A Novel on the Fall of Bronze Age Crete" (Athens, Greece: Kalendis 1996, 679pp., ISBN 960-219-062-0) tells the Minoan Cretan version of these events based on both archaeology and myth.
Steven Pressfield's Last of the Amazons is a fictional account of Theseus meeting and subsequent marriage to Antiope and the ensuing war. Theseus also appears as a major character in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale
Jorge Luis Borges also presents an interesting variation of the myth in a short story, told from Asterion's point-of-view, "La Casa de Asterion" ("The House of Asterion"), which depends for its full effect on the reader's not realizing the identity of the narrator until the end.
The Cretan Chronicles are an alternative, interactive version of the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. The reader controls Theseus's brother Altheus, who learns from Hermes Theseus was killed by the Minotaur and takes up his brother's quest to slay the beast.
Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, which is set in the distant future, contains a retelling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, about a student who makes a son from dreams and sends him off to fight an ogre who, unlike the minotaur, has a head like a castle and a body like a ship. In order to save a young maiden, the young man of dreams defeats the ogre by blinding him with burning tar and then returns to the island where the student lives. Sadly the student sees the sails, blackened by the burning tar, and, thinking his created son is dead, throws himself to his death, for "no man lives long when his dreams are dead." The story indicates that both mythology and language have corrupted over time, with the student creating a 'Theseus' (thesis) and the USS Monitor replacing the Minotaur.
In the 2007 video game "God of War II", Theseus is depicted as the guardian of the Fates.